ST. PAUL -- Richie Porrazzo can’t keep up with the new crop of solar gardens.
“This is nuts!” said Porrazzo, wiping sweat from his sun-baked scalp, as his crew scrambled to build an installation in Dakota County.
As they labored in the heat, two gardens next to them were already churning out power. Porrazzo said he would have to finish quickly, because more solar orders are waiting in Woodbury and Farmington.
Porrazzo is part of the solar flare in Minnesota, the nation’s leader in solar gardens. The number exploded to 208 in 2018 — more than one-third of the total in the U.S.
Most states discourage solar gardens, because their electricity costs almost three times more than the power from industrial-grade mega-facilities. But in Minnesota, solar power is a cottage industry that spreads money, jobs and electricity more evenly.
“It is inherently democratizing,” said John Farrell, co-director of the Minneapolis office of the Institute for Local Self-reliance.
The solar gardens are rising like soybeans in Cottage Grove, Lakeville and Farmington. They are the reason why Minnesota’s solar capacity leaped by 47 percent last year, according to the state Department of Commerce.
“It’s a good deal all around,” said Porrazzo, the site construction manager for California-based REC Solar.
A Minnesota thing
Like hotdish and lakes, solar gardens are largely a Minnesota thing.
Customers pay a monthly fee for the solar power, which is blended with the electricity generated by the local utility company.
Normally, solar power is managed like nuclear or coal power — generated by billion-dollar mega-plants owned by huge corporations.
Typical is the 579-megawatt facility in Rosamond, Calif., which covers five square miles, or about 16 times the size of Lake Phalen in St. Paul.
That’s not how Minnesota does solar.
A 2013 state law placed no limits on the amount of power solar gardens could generate. The law requires that utilities, including Xcel Energy, must buy whatever the gardens produce. Other regulations encourage multiple, smaller gardens.
As a result, many solar gardens in Minnesota are relatively tiny — one-megawatt facilities on about four acres. They are widely scattered, with 13 in Dakota County, 11 in Washington County and two in Ramsey County.
New businesses jump at the chance to build, manage and market the gardens. CleanChoice Energy, for example, is a company that began one year before Minnesota’s law was passed, and already manages the customers of 15 solar gardens statewide.
Its latest garden opened in Cottage Grove in June, the city’s fifth.
“Minnesota is a community solar leader, and a leader in solar jobs, too,” said CleanChoice spokesman Sam Boykin.
On July 3, REC’s Porrazzo had four companies on-site in the Dakota County facility.
“This has generated so many jobs,” he said. “Not just crappy jobs, either — jobs you can support a family with.”
The gardens boost local economies with lease payments to landowners.
“They mean 30 years of steady income for a farmer,” said Porrazzo.
Three times more expensive
One advocate for the gardens might surprise advocates of solar power — Xcel Energy.
In other states, utilities lobby against gardens, seeing them as unwanted competition. But Xcel has jumped on the sun-wagon, and now operates 13 solar gardens.
That’s in addition to the company’s 300 megawatts of solar capacity — which it blends with power from natural gas, nuclear and coal sources. Solar power is now about 2 percent of the company’s total electrical output.
A drawback of solar gardens is the cost. A watt produced by Minnesota’s cottage-industry system is almost three times more expensive than one from large-scale solar facilities.
Chris Clark, president of Xcel-Minnesota, South Dakota, North Dakota, said a megawatt/hour from a solar garden costs about $120, compared with $45 from Xcel’s large-scale solar facilities.
The same electricity from coal — by comparison — costs about $25.
Another downside to the Minnesota plan: cottage industries grow more slowly.
States that rely on mega-farms get a higher percentage of their power from the sun. California gets 17 percent of its power from solar plants, compared with about 2 percent in Minnesota.
But the Institute’s Farrell said Minnesota’s micro-gardens are woven into communities, so customers feel connected to them. The small gardens encourage entrepreneurs.
Customers don’t mind paying for solar power from small businesses, when they wouldn’t necessarily support a mega-farm owned by a huge company.
There are dozens of companies actively selling solar subscriptions statewide, which increases interest.
That’s why Minnesota’s system, said Xcel’s Clark, generates “consumer excitement.”
Ultimately, solar gardens won’t be needed, because Xcel is on track to eliminate all carbon-based sources of electricity by 2050.
But until then, Minnesota’s sales pitch — buy from your friendly neighborhood solar garden — is accelerating the shift to carbon-free energy, said the Institute’s Farrell.